Mr Hunt told MPs that up to 1m hospital appointments could be postponed, and 100,000 operations cancelled if the wave of strikes proposed by junior doctors go ahead.
The health secretary repeated his claim to be ‘deeply perplexed’ that BMA leaders were pursuing the action – the ‘most extreme in NHS history’. He pointed out that the union had backed the contract the government plans to impose, ahead of a vote that saw a majority of junior doctors vote against accepting it.
Speaking in the House of Commons, he said that 'nothing was more demoralising or polarising than a damaging strike' and that it was 'not too late to turn away from the path of confrontation and put patients first'.
The statement was shortly preceded by a BMA announcement that the five-day strike scheduled for next week will no longer go ahead, after NHS England said it needed more time to arrange cover during the action.
Three further all-out strikes – each lasting five days – are still due to go ahead in October, November and December, unless the government drops plans to impose the new junior doctor contract next month.
Mr Hunt welcomed this move, but added that it should ‘not obscure the fact that the remaining planned industrial action is unprecedented in length and severity and will be damaging for patients’.
Junior doctor strikes
He told MPs: ‘It is deeply perplexing for patients, NHS leaders, and indeed the government that the reaction of the BMA leadership, who previously supported the contract, is now to initiate the most extreme strike action in NHS history, inflicting unprecedented misery on millions of patients up and down the country.
‘We currently anticipate around up to 100,000 elective operations will be cancelled and up to a million hospital appointments will be postponed, inevitably impacting on our ability to hit the vital 18 weeks performance standard.
‘As with previous strikes, we cannot give an absolute guarantee that patients will be safe. But hospitals up and down the country will bust a gut to look after their patients in this unprecedented situation and communicate with people whose care is likely to be affected as soon as possible.
‘Turning to the long term causes of the dispute, it is clear that for the BMA negotiators it has been largely about pay.
‘But I recognise that for the majority of junior doctors there are a much broader range of concerns including the way their training is structured, the ability to sustain family life during training periods, the gender pay gap and rota gaps. After the May agreement we set up a structured process to look at all these concerns outside the contract and I intend this work to continue.’
He said a range of work had been carried out by Health Education England (HEE) to improve concerns junior doctors had outside of the contract. Work had also been done to strengthen whistleblowing protections for junior doctors and safe working hours, he added.
He added: 'There may remain honest differences of opinion on seven-day care. But the way to resolve them is through cooperation and dialogue, not confrontation and strikes, which harm patients.
‘To those who say these changes are demoralising the NHS workforce I say nothing is more demoralising or more polarising than a damaging strike. It is not too late to turn away from the path of confrontation and put patients first and I urge everyone to consider how their own individual actions in the coming months will impact on people who desperately need the services our NHS offers.
‘This government will not waver in our commitment to make the NHS the safest, highest quality healthcare system in the world and I commend this statement to the House.’
Speaking after the first five-day strike was suspended, BMA junior doctors committee chair Dr Ellen McCourt said: 'Our hospitals are chronically understaffed, our NHS is desperately underfunded – we have to listen to our colleagues when they tell us that they need more time to keep patients safe.
'Future action is still avoidable. The BMA has repeatedly said it will call off further action if the government puts a halt to plans to force junior doctors to work under a contract they have rejected because they don’t believe it is good for the future of patient care or the profession.'